I have decided to take as my guide in rereading the book this line from this line from Katsamakusa by Nasume Soseki
The pleasure we get gain from a Noh play springs not from any skill at presenting the raw human feeling of the everyday world but from clothing feeling as it is in layer upon layer of art, and in a kind of slowed serenity of deportment not found in the real world.
As I began to reread the first chapter of The Old Capital I was struck by the large number of references to floral and garden images. In the first chapter (17 pages) there are 92 references to flowers (mostly violets), trees, leaves and garden images. I did not count the number of images in the remainder of the book but I think it is about 900, in this 182 page book.
The basic story of the book (this post assumes you have read the book) deals with a young woman who is the adopted daughter stolen at birth by her parents from her real parents, her attempt to reunite with her twin sister and discover her true roots. It is also a story of the conflict of tradition and modern, west and Japanese values, old and young, art and commerce and other pairings.
In order to go very far into the layers of art in a novel that maybe a bit culturallly remote from us, we need to ponder what the assumed base of symbolic references the author could assume in his audience. When I read "Crazy Iris" by Masuji Ibuse I saw that flowers have symbolic meaning in Japanese literature, art and even tattoos. Any one among the assumed audience for The Old Capital could be assumed understand this language. Given this I think the first few pages of the book tells nearly the whole story in terms of symbolic garden imagery. The shortness of the book is also a factor in understanding some of the layers of art. The book can be "held in your head" easily and read in just a few hours.
Chiceko discovered the violets flowering on the trunk of the old maple tree. "Ah, They've bloomed again this year", she said as she encountered the gentleness of spring...The trunk of the tree twisted slightly..and just her head it bent even further. Above the bend the limbs extended outward, dominating the garden, the ends of the longer branches dropping with their own weight
The maple tree in the symbolism assumed by Kawabata stands for practicality balanced with art, love and beauty. It is seen as a protective sheltering tree that grows in a cultivated defined atmosphere. The conflict between practicality and art is one of the centers of the book. Chiceko's parents love and shelter her but they also stole her from her parents. The trunk of the tree twists itself to go over the head of Chiceko. The tree dominates the garden just as Chiceko's father dominates her life. The branches dropping with their own weight indicate the inability of Chiceko's mother and father to deal with the evil act that founded their family life. Chiceko is a bit surprised the flowers have bloomed again this year. She knows some how that there may come a time soon when they will not, when the underpinning of her family life if destroyed when she finds out her adoptive parents stole her from real parents.
Just below the large bend were two hollow places with violets growing in each. Every spring they would put forth flowers. The two violets had been on the tree ever since Chieko could remember.
The upper violet and the lower violet were separated by about a foot. "Do the upper and lower violets ever meet? Do they know each other"? Chieko mused. What could it mean to say that violets "meet" or "know" one another.
The violet is assumed to mean faithfulness, bashfulness, fragility, beauty accepted but not worshiped. The violet is the emblem of Chieko and her missing sister. Her parents took from her the history she might have had with her lost to her sister when they abducted her. Of course now we know they will meet and this meet and the meeting of other pairs is an artistic center of the book. As we admire Chieko's father for his devotion to his daughter and ponder the beautiful kimono's that are his work and in part his life we can see him as a twisted maple tree sheltering a family created in a moment of great evil. Just as the branches begin to droop with their own weight, maybe the weight of guilt of the father will bring the tree down one day thus destroying the potential for the violets, both sisters, to develop. One impulsive act of evil is the unseen root of the sheltering maple tree.
I think part of the artistic points of The Old Capital is to teach us that life cannot just be seen just like a book cannot really be read if we are to gain value from it. We need to learn to see through the layers of art that we use in building up the myths of our lives. In the first few lines of the book the full story is compressed into naturalistic descriptions codified for those who wish to read them.
I will take a look at a couple of other ways of looking through the layers of art in The Old Capital in my next post on the book. I think this book is assumed by the author to be reread as we need to know the whole story to really read the first page with any depth. It is meant to be like a poem that we can see all on the page at once.